James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne.
James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.
Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.
Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
This is the actual winner of the 2014 Boston Marathon, Meb Keflezighi, but Bennett Beach achieved an equally impressive goal. (Reuters)
OK, we've all just seen the most exciting 2 minutes in sports, from Churchill Downs. Congrats to California Chrome.
Before it recedes too far in the past, let me note an amazing achievement last week in the 2014 Boston Marathon. Not just the first American male winner in a very long time. Nor simply the "Boston Strong" inspiration from the race, inspiring as it was.
On top of all that, Bennett Beach made history by starting and finishing his 47th consecutive Boston Marathon, which at 26.2 miles apiece is a total of 1,231.4 miles. No one had ever done that before.
I paid attention on general reverence-for-history grounds—but also because I had run alongside Ben in the 1969 and 1970 Boston Marathons, when we were friends on the college newspaper. As he described those days in a nice item for WBUR:
“In 1968, you showed up at Hopkinton Junior High School, and some guy would put a stethoscope on your chest to confirm that you were healthy enough to run it and hand out your number, and you were on your way,” he said. “It’s just a different world.”
Back then, he said the athletes were rewarded at the finish line with beef stew and showers at the Prudential Center. But, then again, back then, there were only about 1,000 runners.
Ben had in fact started in 1968; it was his description of that first race, which he said required hardly any preparation, that got me interested the following year. And while I had my fill of marathoning (including some more with Ben) by the early 1980s, Ben has been there every single year since 1968.
—In 2012, he tied the record for most consecutive Boston Marathons.
—In 2013, when he was running to set the record, he had passed the halfway mark when the bombs went off and the race was cancelled. Runners who had gotten more than halfway were deemed to have "completed" the race, but Ben felt this was not a clean way to get the record.
—This year, he had leg and dehydration problems late in the race, on top of some longer-term health issues, and had to walk the final stretch. But he got across the line in time and now, uniquely, has a 47-consecutive-finishes string. In addition to an astonishing 17 finishes at 2:40 or below, which means averaging close to 6 minutes per mile for the entire race. The fastest I ever did, in a Marine Corps Marathon in DC, was 3:02, or an average of 7-minute miles.
Congratulations to Ben Beach, his wife Carol, and their family. Also please see this great story in the Boston Globe by John Powers, our contemporary and friend on the college paper, which includes a very nice picture of Ben. I don't know many people who have achieved more in a certain category than anyone else, ever, so I am all the prouder of what Bennett Beach has done.
First, the China stories you should skip. Using up my once-per-lifetime pass for such activity, I am about to show a screenshot of a tweet that I myself put out two days ago.
The backstory here is the newly released result of a big, years-long, international (UN) effort to calculate price levels around the world—and thus to improve the "Purchasing Power Parity" figures for comparing spending power in different countries. Simplest example: a few years ago, 1 U.S. dollar was officially worth about 8 Chinese yuan renminbi, or RMB. That rate is not set on an open market like, say, dollar-euro rates, but instead is carefully "managed" by the Chinese government. But if average prices in China were only half as high as in the U.S., then on a PPP basis the Chinese economy would be twice as large as the official exchange rate made it seem, since the RMB would go twice as far in buying things.
The newest results show (to oversimplify) that effective Chinese prices have been even lower than assumed, and therefore the purchasing power of Chinese RMB has been even greater. After these adjustments, the overall Chinese economy is deemed to be about 20 percent larger than previously believed—and therefore either it already has, or it very soon will, "overtake" the United States to become, in PPP terms, the world's biggest economy.
Thus silly (over)reactions like this, from The Economist:
Just for the record, my initials are the same, but the "J.M.F." listed as one of the authors is not me. And this from Bloomberg View:
Headlines and reactions like these are ridiculous, as I'm sure both publications are aware and as each of the articles concedes further down in the stories. Compared with one week ago, when China's economy was much "smaller" than America's, nothing economic has changed in either China or the United States. With these new figures, we may have a closer approximation of how circumstances for China's recently urbanized hundreds-of-millions compare with others around the globe. But the differences not captured by such figures—freedom to or restrictions on travel within a country, who can and cannot go to school, the still-unfolding enormous effects of mass urbanization, the nature and availability of health-care systems, above all the country's environmental catastrophe—are also part of any serious attempt to understand how "rich" or "poor" China is.
Rather than belabor that point, let me turn you to an excellent ongoing discussion at ChinaFile, whose reaction could not be more different from agog headlines about a new Chinese Century. For instance, this installment from Arthur Kroeber, who has been on-scene in China for many years and understands how little such statistics signify:
...this is a “who cares?” moment. It has been obvious for quite some time that China would soon overtake the U.S. in sheer economic size. If one doesn’t accept the current PPP conversion rate then just wait five or ten years and China will be bigger at market exchange rates. But basically, all that this shift tells us is that China has way more people than the U.S.— 4.2 times as many, to be exact. So, as soon as China stopped being fantastically poorer (per capita) than the U.S., and became simply a lot poorer, its total economy surpassed that of the U.S. (And still lags that of the European Union, which is arguably the world’s biggest economy, if one takes economic integration rather than political boundaries as the criterion.) Big deal....
Fundamentally Damien [Ma] is right that this “who’s on top?” discussion misses all that is truly interesting, namely how China and other countries manage social tensions, income distribution and other problems arising from high speed economic growth. Because of its sheer bulk, China is indeed wealthy and poor at the same time, and the responses to that paradox are a far more fascinating target of study than the mere size of the economy.
There is a lot more nuance in that ChinaFile discussion, which I highly recommend. As a handy guide the next time you see some pie-eyed headline about the PPP:
As a matter of individual or family welfare, this is a reminder of how much poorer the average Chinese person remains than the average North American or European.
Also on the individual or family basis, the average Chinese person is actually further behind than these figures suggest, because (as Arthur Kroeber points out) so much less of the nation's total output goes to individual consumption relative to Europe or North America, and so much more to infrastructure or export.
Still for individuals and families, if there were any PPP-style adjustment for environmental costs—epidemic deaths especially in Northern China from air pollution, the emergence of "cancer villages," increased rates of birth defects, destruction of fisheries and arable land—China's wealth would be much more heavily discounted than that of other large economies.
And if we're considering the national scale, as implied by loose talk of the Chinese Century, then the largest measures of national influence and potential come into play. From universities to global corporations to "soft power" to, of course, the military. No sane person contends that we are anywhere close to the "Chinese Century" in this sense—as Arthur Kroeber and others say in today's discussion, and as I argued at length in China Airborne.
Plus the ongoing mystery of which statistics out of China can and cannot be believed, and when and why.
China is a big, fascinating, fast-moving society that I learn from practically every day, whose continuing rise has done much more good than harm, and that I do my best to interest outsiders in. But Economist and Bloomberg—come on.
Next, a China story you should read. Over the months I've written about allegations that the Bloomberg journalistic empire has defanged its coverage of China (especially corruption stories), to avoid jeopardizing its terminal-and-data business there. Some previous items here, here, here.
No one at Bloomberg has ever agreed to respond on the record to these contentions. The only official reaction I have ever received, via spokesman Ty Trippet (with whom I've talked before or after each installment and again just now), is that the company "has no comment." Over the months I have heard from a very large number of current and former Bloomberg employees, most of whom have been very concerned that I not identify them, their geographical locations, or their exact roles in any traceable way.
Now Howard French—a veteran international correspondent, long with the NYT and now at Columbia Journalism School, my friend and colleague first in Japan and then in China, author of an Atlantic article on and now a great new book about China in Africa—has a much fuller account of the Bloomberg-and-China story in the CJR. It is definitely worth reading.
At the end of his story, French does get a reaction beyond "no comment" from Matthew Winkler, Bloomberg's editor in chief and a man whom French reports to be in the middle of the China-coverage controversies:
Several days after our initial email exchange, Winkler, the editor in chief, wrote back to provide his sole quote for this account. “I’m proud of our reporting and our work speaks for itself,” it read.
Asked via email if that applied to the now apparently dead second investigative take on high-level corruption in China, Winkler replied, “The statement covers our work.”
Here is the problem Bloomberg is creating for itself by refusing to engage in discussion of this issue. The company is full of first-rate reporters and editors, including a lot of people who are my long-time friends. It is one of the great news organizations of the era. In China as everywhere else it has very good people doing very good work.
But: over a long period now, named individuals have made specific and very serious allegations about the organization's trustworthiness on a crucially important ongoing story of these times. Think for a moment of any other institution facing comparably specific questions about its decisions and values: a politician about conflicts of interest, a company about product recalls, a university about controversies over athletics or sexual assault, a tech company about protecting privacy or handling government pressures. In any of these situations, Bloomberg's tough reporters would be among the first pushing for specific answers, beyond "no comment" or "our work speaks for itself."
It is long past time for someone senior at Bloomberg—the former mayor himself, editor-in-chief Winkler, chairman Peter Grauer, or anyone else in a position to speak for the firm—to do what Bloomberg reporters would expect of other institutions, and accept questions and give answers about the allegations that have mounted up.
What is very good, and accurate, about this headline: the verb "blocks" and the noun "filibuster."
On why those two words are important—in contrast, say, to the word "fails" in the headline below from the same paper (and same reporter) in similar circumstances less than three months ago—see this compendium of items on reporters' and editors' discomfort in using the plain word "filibuster" to describe what is going on.
Donald Sterling, center, flanked by his wife Rochelle and the actor George Segal, both white (Reuters)
These writers are well-known enough not to need any pointing-out from me, but the insights in their pieces are strong and clear enough that I still want to highlight them.
1) Jeffrey Toobin on Donald Sterling—with crucial cameo from Chief Umpire Justice John "I just call the balls and strikes" Roberts.
Because John Roberts has decided (in Citizens United and McCutcheon) that money cannot corrupt politics except when conveyed in brown paper sacks and stored in the freezer, we are en route to having no campaign finance laws. And because John Roberts has decided (in Shelby County) that the main problem in American race relations is affirmative-action laws and similar race-conscious legislation, we are en route to dismantling voting-rights protections that an elected Congress has repeatedly deemed necessary. For previous items on Roberts as one-man-legislature, see this and this.
On the New Yorker site, Jeffrey Toobin connects Roberts's rulings with the social indicators of the past week involving Cliven Bundy and now Donald Sterling. Short and worth reading. E.g.:
Bundy and Sterling represent an ugly corner of contemporary American life, but it is one that is entirely invisible in recent Supreme Court rulings. In the Roberts Court, there are no Bundys and Sterlings; the real targets of the conservative majority are those who’ve spent their lives fighting the Bundys and Sterlings of the world.
2) Paul Krugman on False Equivalence. In a NYT web item, Krugman introduces the term "centrist echo chamber" to describe the lazy but all-but-irresistible press instinct to match any case of real extremism from one party with an assumed or asserted equal nuttiness on the other side. There are times when the two parties are more or less equidistant from a split-the-difference centrist position. There are other times, like now, when they are not—and Krugman's item is one more bit of evidence to add to the growing heap.
3) Jeffrey Goldberg on Apartheid Israel. It's a fact of life that certain kinds of debate are acceptable "within the family" and unacceptable from outsiders. I can complain about my relatives, but you'd better not do so. The same is true, and natural, within a nation, within races and ethnic groups, among friends, and in any other situation where people recognize a difference between "us" (who can bicker and criticize) and "them" (who should butt out).
Thus everyone understands that debate on Israel-Palestine issues within Israel is freer-swinging and wider-ranging than what is acceptable within the United States. Thus Haaretz in particular routinely publishes reports and opinions that would have Abraham Foxman on high alert if they appeared in the U.S. press.
And thus too John Kerry has had to issue an artfully hedgednon-apologetic "wrong words were chosen" statement for stating the plain truth. Namely, that unless Israel and the Palestinians can work out a two-state solution, eventually Israel "winds up either being an apartheid state with second-class citizens—or it ends up being a state that destroys the capacity of Israel to be a Jewish state." The point is frequently made within Israel, sometimes including the word apartheid; but it's awkward for any outsider to make, especially when the outsider holds Kerry's current job.
Jeffrey Goldberg—a friend and Atlantic colleague and office neighbor—isn't constrained by representing the U.S. government, and he has an insider/ outsider status in assessing Israeli politics. In a Bloomberg item today he uses the Kerry episode as a reminder that a single word—apartheid—can keep people from hearing any words that come after it.* (We can think of other words that have that power.) So Goldberg says that he doesn't use the term any more. Nonetheless, he says, the real-world prospects are as Kerry described, because of the continuing-and-expanding occupation in the West Bank:
The settlers who entangle Israel in the lives of Palestinians believe that they are the vanguard of Zionism. In fact, they are the vanguard of bi-nationalism. Their myopia will lead to the end of Israel as a democracy and as a haven for the Jewish people. The regime they help impose on Palestinians is cruel, unfair and unnecessary. Rather than label this regime in an incendiary fashion, I now prefer simply to describe its disagreeable qualities.
But if Kerry, following [Ehud] Barak’s lead, wants to warn about a possible apartheid future for Israel, I’m not going to condemn him as anti-Israel. Israeli leaders must open their minds to the possibility that he has their long-term interests at heart.
Bonus 4) While I'm at it, this New Yorker essay by my longtime friend Michael Kinsley is very much worth reading. It's about the cognitive effects of Parkinson's disease, with which he was diagnosed 20 years ago, when he was in his early 40s—and about the larger prospects for his (and my) Baby Boom generation as it contemplates the actuarial inevitability of Alzheimer's disease and widespread other "cognitive deficits." An extremely difficult topic, handled with grace and skill. This item is subscribers-only, but with any good magazine you should subscribe.
* My one-time employer Jimmy Carter learned this lesson. At the Camp David meetings in 1978, he did as much as any modern figure to advance the security of Israel (and Egypt) by guiding Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin to an agreement that until the last moment seemed impossible, but that has endured. Lawrence Wright's very good play Camp David is about the emotional and policy distance all three leaders had to travel to reach an accord. I was there at the time, albeit in a spear-carrier staff role, and everything I saw matches the version presented by Wright, including Carter's perseverance and insight in changing Sadat's and Begin's minds.
But eight years ago Carter's book Palestine: Peace, not Apartheid made him a pariah to many in Israel—even though his arguments are very similar to those routinely made by the Israeli left.
Anyone familiar with modern Malaysia—and hey, that should include almost everybody in this era of MH370 coverage—knows the name "Dr. Mahathir." For more than two decades, Mahathir Mohamad, originally trained as a medical doctor, was prime minister of Malaysia. To put it in perspective for Americans, this was a span that included all of Ronald Reagan's time in office, plus that of the first George Bush, plus all of Bill Clinton's, plus much of George W. Bush's first term.
"Dr. M" first came to political prominence with a famous/notorious book called The Malay Dilemma, which argued that the country's more-numerous, less-prosperous ethnic Malays deserved special favors from the government, because eons of life in their lush tropical paradise had made them less fit for economic competition than the hard-driving Chinese minority. (Mahathir was head of the dominant ethnic-Malay political party, the United Malays National Organization, or UMNO.)
To say that Dr. M is prickly undervalues that term. While serving as prime minister, he once got into what we'd now call a flame war with a 10-year-old schoolboy in England.* When Mahathir had a heart operation in the late 1980s, the local joke was that the point of the operation was to give him one (a heart). For decades Dr. M governed with a giant chip on his shoulder, and even out of office he's retained his trademark style, as he shows with his views on the missing Malaysia Airlines flight.
Are most people puzzled by what happened to the plane? Do nearly all fault the Malaysian government's handling of the situation? They should shut up, Dr. M has explained. It's actually Boeing's fault. As he put it on his personal blog, picked up yesterday by the Malay Mail online:
I am very upset over MAS [Malaysia Airline System] employees being held hostage in Beijing by the relatives of the passengers of MH 370. I am upset because they are blaming the wrong people. The loss of the plane is due to the makers Boeing.
How can Boeing produce a plane that is so easily disabled? [And so on.] ...
MAS is not at fault, lax security or not. MAS flew a plane fully expecting it to perform the task. But the plane has somehow behaved differently. Who is responsible? Not MAS but certainly the makers of the plane — Boeing Aircraft Corporation.
The perfidy of the West knows no bounds. Meanwhile, even as Dr. M is solving the mystery, airline pilot Patrick Smith, of the Ask the Pilot blog, says that it is farther than ever from explanation:
Count me among those who feel that this is how ends: a mystery. The plane is out there somewhere, at the bottom of the Indian Ocean, and in all likelihood we’re not going to find it....
While I am not ruling anything out, my hunch is that a malfunction, rather than foul play or a pilot suicide mission, brought the plane down. A poorly handled decompression, for example, caused by a structural problem or windscreen failure. Or a catastrophic electrical failure combined with smoke, fire or fumes that rendered the crew unconscious. Granted that doesn’t totally jive with the evidence, but none of the theories do.
That's what makes the situation an enduring and perhaps permanent mystery. No explanation makes sense. Except, of course, Dr. Mahathir's.
* While we were living in Malaysia in the 1980s, a British schoolboy wrote to Mahathir lamenting the destruction of the rain forest, mainly for conversion to palm-oil plantations. Dr. M took the time to write a blistering personal note back to the boy, lambasting the hypocrisy of Western hand-wringers and their late discovery of environmental concerns. "They should expel all those people all the people living in the British countryside and allow secondary forests to grow and fill these new forests with wolves and bears etc., before studying tropical angles." The man had an edge. I described this episode and the general Malaysian situation in Looking at the Sun.
The more consequential side of his approach was his long legal persecution of his one-time protege, Anwar Ibrahim. For background see this. We loved living in Malaysia, but a notable item on the minus side of the ledger was the Mahathir-era governing style.
"There is a cultural element at work here; a particularly American ethos which sees technology as the solution to any challenge. Couple that with finance which dictates what happens in our health care system. You could call that ethos the real 'software' that has shaped and will, sadly in my view, continue to direct American health care delivery."
For background on the EMR saga, see this original article and previous installments one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, and eight. Our series went on hiatus while I was on the road in Mississippi. Now let's dig into the pros and cons once more.
1) If libraries can do it, why can't doctors too? A reader in the tech industry writes:
When libraries began to transition from 3 x 5 catalog cards to online catalogs the Library of Congress and leading libraries developed MARC (Machine Readable Cataloging) records. See information about these standards at the Library of Congress website.
Now library automation vendors have to provide ways to import and export MARC-format records to and from their versions of a library’s online catalog. In addition, library vendors can make it easy for users of their software to query the databases of other libraries based on using the MARC standards.
HealthIT.gov is working in the area of electronic medical records. It would seem that standards for medical records can be developed so that health records could more easily be shared. It would be easier to change to a better software vendor without having to re-enter all the data. Vendors who develop a better interface would find it easier to attract customers to their product. It would be easier for primary care physicians to exchange patient information with specialists, even if they use different software packages
2) The market mentality "is the real software of American health care." From a reader in New York state:
As a communications consultant to two local health networks, I see first hand different perspectives not only on EMR implementation but other changes driven by or attributed (rightly or not) to the ACA.
For example, corporate administrators harping on provider "productivity" (see more patients, get more $) tout EMR as an efficiency tool. Providers (physicians, NPs, RNs) vary in their responses but the majority would side with your "Commodore 64" doc's comments. They welcome tools that work and improve communication, especially shared, useful clinical info vs.billing codes and data that they deem irrelevant to quality medical care.
To me, the EMR hoohah reflects more than the predictable "software elephant" designed by engineers without serious input from actual end users and sold by hook and crook to administrators who then impose that particular system on their network practitioners and providers.
There is a cultural element at work here; a particularly American ethos which sees technology as the solution to any challenge. Couple that with finance which dictates what happens in our health care system, seen and operated as a "market."
You could call that ethos the real "software" that has shaped and will, sadly in my view, continue to direct American health care delivery driven by non-providers: insurance, bio-tech, pharmaceutical and yes, IT companies aided and abetted by politicians and Wall Street. This element is no doubt a major reason why American health care is the most expensive with lower quality outcomes than France, Sweden and other developed nations.
And as a bonus #(3), how out of touch Americans are. A reader begins with a quote from this previous exchange, and then replies:
[Quote] "I've long thought what we need is a card that is programmable, the size of a credit or insurance card, that you swipe through a reader, punch in a security code, and it downloads the info to the new doctor's system. Why no one has implemented this I have no idea."
This comment, from a reasonably informed reader, is illustrative of just how out of the loop people are in the United States. Many countries have already implemented medical ID cards. In France, the cards contain one's complete medical history. The last I heard, the German cards were limited to the users insurance information and they were looking at going further.
More in the queue, thanks to all. I went to my doctor today, for a routine checkup. Everything's fine! I've been grateful to him ever since he figured out the only serious health problem I've ever had, nearly six years ago, which led to surgery effecting its cure.
On the Hmmm! side about today's visit, I had to sit for a while filling out paper forms on a clipboard when I first arrived. (Me: "All this info is already on file. Why do I have to fill it out again?" Person at desk: "For insurance purposes," today's irrebuttable claim.) On the positive side, the doctor had all my past records available in a little laptop as we talked -- but looked right at me through the visit.
Black hole? Bermuda Triangle? Now another possibility for Team CNN. (
If you're anything like me, you're already worried about how CNN will keep going, once even they recognize that there is no conceivable extra angle to wring out of the sad mystery of MH370. What new questions will Don Lemon have for his daily six-expert panel of analysts? What will those panelists do with their evenings? What will "breaking news" and "developing story" refer to at the bottom of CNN's screens? This air disaster really is sad, and it really is mysterious, but even the saddest, most puzzling, and most dramatic sagas eventually drift from the center of attention. (For instance: the 1980s "dingo baby" tragedy in Australia. Now there was a dramatic and mysterious story, and while it gave rise to many good books plus one of Meryl Streep's Oscar nominations, nowadays entire years can go by without it being mentioned on the news.)
Therefore I perked up when I saw this item in the morning's mailbag. I pass it on gratis to CNN's bookers and producers. It's from a very nice-sounding young woman in China, and I see lots of possibilities for CNN here.
Dear new friend,
I am a Chinese, 20 years old girl and will like to need your advice over my parents’ property. My father is Chinese as well as my mother. They own two big businesses, one is an electronics warehouse in China and another one is a garment factory in Cambodia.
Recently, my parents are still missing in Malaysian airplane because they were flying back to Beijing to celebrate their 28thanniversary of marriage.
Now I am studying business management in Cambodia and I hope I will be helping my father’s business after my studies. But after hearing this big shock for me about the missing airplane so I want to sell my father’s garment factory in Cambodia. Because of instability in garment business in Cambodia, I decided to sell this factory $23,000,000.00 but the government agreed to pay me US$17,000,000.00 out of money after deducting salaries for factory workers, environmental damages and other costs.
I really need a guardian to help me to manage this big amount of money and the warehouse in China as I am just a university student. I want to move out of this country and start refresh in a new country with you. Please reply me back out of pity on me and help.
After I receive your caring and supportive reply, we will talk more in details to make things work faster for both of us.
I'm looking forward to hearing the panelists's views—or a one-on-one with Richard Quest, as the bereaved young lady guides him on a tour of her family's factory in Cambodia. Her contact details available if you ask.
To answer the obvious question: If I think this coverage is so nutty, why do I watch it? I don't really. But several times per day I want to click over to CNN to make sure they're still on the story. And they still are!
It's been a long, and fascinating, but long—but also fascinating!—series of days in and around the "Golden Triangle" of Mississippi. Fascinating enough that we'll be back for another visit and more interviews in a little while, with our friends from Marketplace. And I'm tired enough from flying back late today that for now I just want to get out one note before beginning more systematic chronicles shortly.
Reinvention and resilience across the nation Read more
The note concerns factories and manufacturing. As I mentioned throughout the years in China, I found factories unfailingly valuable guides to life there. And whether you're in China or anyplace else, you can never go wrong seeing another factory.
When we got to the Columbus/Lowndes County airport in Mississippi this past weekend and found it surrounded by old, abandoned, derelict former low-wage factory sites, I hadn't realized how many enormous new higher-tech, higher-wage factories had opened up near the newer Golden Triangle airport on the other side of town.
I spent much of yesterday inside those new factories—including the one represented in the shot at the top of this item. That is the Russian-owned Severstal steel mill, where scrap metal is heated to 3000 degrees F and rendered into new sheets, coils, and bars for use in car factories and elsewhere. Inside the mill it is hot, deafening, dramatic, and similar to many Chinese factories in reminding you of the gargantuan-scale feats of engineering on which the conveniences and lightweight, elegantly engineered details of modern life depend.
Here's how the plant looks from above—I took a similar picture from the plane today, but this one from the company's website is less jiggly. It's worth remembering that this vast industrial expanse is surrounded by fields, woods, the meanderings of the Tennessee-Tombigbee waterways, and other touches of the underdeveloped rural South.
There will be more to say about that factory, and the strategy and incentives that led Russian industrialists to invest some $1.4 billion in a plant in one of the poorest areas of the United States—and the effect it and its neighbors have had, for better and worse, in the environs. It's too late at night to get into it now.
The main point is the vivid reminder of the shifting locus of America-based manufacturing plants—now to the American South. The endless cycles of industrial rise and fall have kept pushing industry to sites with lower costs and less regulated (and less unionized) operations. Two hundred years ago, that meant part of New England; one hundred years ago, the fast-developing industrial Midwest. Through the early and mid 20th century, it meant parts of the West Coast, the general Sunbelt, and the coastal South. It is dramatic to see what this has meant recently for a place like Mississippi,
John Tierney prepared an Esri map today showing some of the major industrial installations, not little craft works, that have gone into Mississippi. If you click on the dots you can learn more about each one. The cluster in the Golden Triangle are the dots to the left of Birmingham, Alabama.
And here is a company video that gives you an idea of what it is like inside the Severstal mill. Seriously, if you have any interest in regional development, or industrial growth, or how the underpinnings of modern technology actually look, you will find this worth watching. The part starting at around time 1:50 captures an experience that in real life is on the edge between fascinating and terrifying.
I'm not trying to cover all pluses and minuses of this trend right now. I'm mainly saying: for anyone who cares about worldwide shifts in manufacturing, and even for those already familiar with the saga of car plants opening in Tennessee and Kentucky, what is happening in this part of Mississippi is eye-opening.
If you were in Starkville, you could go here tonight.
Here we see the on-draft menu from the Beer Garden in Starkville, Mississippi -- the kind of place where recently you might have expected to find Bud, Bud Light, and Corona.
Reinvention and resilience across the nation Read more
You probably can't read the beer list, so I'll clarify that on draft it offers beers from: Crooked Letter brewery in Ocean Springs, Mississippi; Southern Prohibition Brewing in Hattiesburg; Bayou Teche/ LA 31 brewery in Louisiana; and Yazoo Brewery in Nashville, Tennessee. Plus Sierra Nevada and Green Flash from California. This is the new America.
Also, as a big IPA fan, I note (following this item) that few of the craft beers on the extensive listing are the too-alcoholic, super-hopped Double- or Triple-IPAs. From a reader in California on this trend:
My observation lately has been that the trend of the last decade or so toward heavily hopped beers has plateaued. Retail options cover a wide spectrum, with sours and farmhouse saisons noticeably occupying more shelf space.
Perhaps this is a function of my geographical location, Berkeley, California. Still, I saw the same array early this year in NYC at Grand Central Station in a tiny boutique featuring a remarkably large and varied supply of beers, some from the Northeast, and some from my neck of the woods. Trader Joe's in Southern California, by the way, sells Hangar 24's marvelous double IPA for $1.50 less per 22 oz. bottle than I see it where I live.
Another trend, sadly, is the rise in price. This is due perhaps to a hops shortage or to increasing demand for funky new craft beers. Painfully, I have had to reduce my intake to maintain a budget. I might have to solve the problem altogether by joining still another trend, the home brewing hobbyist.
That is all. Except the other half of the research team, at work.
A heartening surprise of our travel so far: the breadth, seriousness, and—in some places—success of the effort to revitalize small-town downtowns. Or, what 3 programmers from Uzbekistan taught us about America.
Downtown Columbus, Mississippi. Retail and restaurants on the ground floor, apartments and condos above. (James Fallows)
Last weekend my wife and I had three young software developers from Uzbekistan staying with us at our house. (It's a long story.) They were charming young men—Pavel, Igor, and Roman—who had come to America for a tech meeting in North Carolina and had driven from there up to Washington, to spend a little time touring before their flight back to Tashkent.
We mainly wanted to hear about Uzbekistan, but inevitably we had to ask: What's surprised you most in what you've seen in America? "I am surprised that it can be hard to know where a city ends," one of them said, describing his trip north on I-95. "In our country, you come to the end of the city, and it Ends. Here it keeps going on."
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He was talking, of course, about American sprawl. The reality and effects of sprawl are more blatantly visible from a densely trafficked Interstate than some other places, but obviously they're a feature of much of the American landscape. We've thought a lot about sprawl, and in evolving ways, as we continue our flying trip. This is a placeholder note to hint at things that make us feel both better and worse.
The worse part: In virtually every place we have been, if you travel a few blocks from the most attractive or commercially viable revived downtown, or turn your head in a slightly different direction, you will see the familiar wilderness of Quickie Mart, Dress Barn, gas stations (which are morphing into grocery and liquor stores in many places), Applebees, Lowe's, Olive Garden, and the other 50 brand names any America can reel off. They make the country look the same; they're not walkable; their businesses are not local; and so on. (I'm talking here mainly about commercial sprawl; residential sprawl is a related but different phenomenon.)
For instance: Downtown Sioux Falls, SD, is going through a wonderful revival, but the periphery of the town has sprawl-based retail centers for shoppers driving in from smaller prairie towns. The downtown and historic-residential areas of Redlands, Ca., have beautiful Craftsman-era houses, public parks, and preserved orange groves, but two miles away is a typical ugly-congested freeway/mall conglomeration. Downtown Greenville, S.C., is a real gem, but the main road from there to Greer and Spartanburg could be any car-dealer, discount-mall, burger-joint, tattoo-parlor stretch anywhere in the country. St. Marys, Ga., has one of the oldest and most beautiful downtown residential areas in the coastal South, but the I-95 exits and related convenience stores are just around the corner. Really the only exception to this rule has been Eastport, Maine, which is too far from other population centers or thoroughfares even to support a sprawl zone. The closest it comes is a relatively new Family Dollar store a mile from downtown.
Here is a tiny and benign example: the view out the front of our motel in Columbus, Mississippi. Benign because everyone loves Waffle House, and because I've cropped out the rest of the sprawl.
That's part of our American reality; it's part of our landscape; it's part of the push toward drive-through convenience and discount pricing that, for both better and worse, has shaped America's development. Sooner or later I will work up an Esri map to show the spread and location of mall/sprawl.
On the other hand: Before visiting these cities one by one, we had no idea of how central the process of reviving historic downtowns would be to the overall sense of life in smaller towns, or how widespread—and, in a positive rather than homogenized way—and similar these efforts would be.
Right now we're in the middle of the Golden Triangle Region of Mississippi—which as people here know, and many others may not, is the area bounded by the cities of Columbus, Starkville, and West Point. Each town has its own small airfield, and they share a bigger regional airport that's become the center of a surprisingly diverse tech-industrial zone. This area has a more tangled story of economic, social, and political change than some other places we have visited, about which there will be a lot more to say.
For now the point is the power and the popularity of the historic-downtown revival formula. It involves preserving the "bones" of the old buildings, which in much of the country means turn-of-the-20th century store fronts, and WPA-era public buildings.
And then reviving those structures with the right mutually reinforcing combination of the "Three-Rs": retail, residential, and restaurants/bars.
Some of these schemes are further advanced than others, with Greenville (SC), Burlington (Vt), and Holland (Mi) in the lead among places we have seen, and tiny Winters (Ca) and large Sioux Falls (SD) pushing hard. For now the point is our surprise at the breadth and consistency of this effort in otherwise very different parts of the country, and the encouraging results when it succeeds. When people can live downtown, they can walk and shop and eat and drink downtown, and a virtuous cycle of life and revitalization has a chance.
One more look at downtown West Point, Miss.
Also from West Point:
And Columbus on a sunny day yesterday (the store name is Deep South Pout):
And on a cloudy day today:
And, also in Columbus, the Lowndes County Courthouse, site of the upcoming National Day of Prayer.
In a few upcoming posts I'll try to give more examples of this effort, from Greer, South Carolina to Winters, California. Now, off for some industrial interviews.
Toccoa airport, Georgia, on the way in. (Deborah Fallows)
It has been a full and interesting day in the air, from Maryland to Mississippi, and a longer day than expected for a surprisingly touching reason.
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By chance, en route from KGAI, Montgomery Country Airpark outside Washington, to KUBS, the Lowndes County airport in Columbus, Mississippi, we ended up stopping for gas and a break in a place we hadn't expected. It wasn't the site I'd had in mind in Tennessee (because that would have meant going over the mountains near Asheville while the winds turned out to be stronger than I would have liked for crossing mountains). Nor the one I was thinking of in South Carolina (because the post-storm winds in the area were gustier, and not aligned with the runway, than would be convenient). Nor some other place in Alabama -- but, at the last minute, KTOC, the Toccoa / Stephens County Airport in northern Georgia. At the top of the item you see the way its main runway looked as we decided to head in there.
After we landed, I taxied over to the fuel pump and gassed up the airplane, while Deb went into the FBO office to say hello. A minute later she came back out. "Timing is everything," she said, for the millionth time over the years. On entering what is usually a spartan, utilitarian area for checking weather, filing flight plans, and buy snacks out of vending machines, she was immediately charmed by the aroma of roasted ham, candied yams, creamed green beans and broccoli, and other delicacies that recalled her Midwestern childhood. (Below, a counter in one of the pilot rooms at the Toccoa FBO. You would usually expect to see surfaces covered with flight charts, headsets, and so on.)
It was an extended-family potluck Easter banquet right at the FBO, and the families putting it on said: Please join us! And so we (gratefully) did, as part of a multi-generational, multi-family celebration at a little airfield in the middle of the Georgia hills. This was all the more appealing because our presumed alternative had been beef jerky inside the plane.
These people had never seen us before but made us part of the extended family celebration for the afternoon. We heard about why people liked (or didn't) Toccoa, why some people moved away, why others wanted to move there -- and why its famous falls have a vertical drop higher even than Niagara's. Here is where we sat while enjoying ham and everything else.
"We feel very lucky to have ended up here just now," I told the airport manager as we were heading out, toward Mississippi. "Or you could say you were blessed," he said. "You'll remember us, either way!"
In the current issue, I have a brief story based on an interview with Steven Chu and Yi Cui, now both of Stanford, about advances in the seemingly boring but actually exciting world of battery technology, and why that is essential to lower-carbon, cleaner-fuel power systems.
The discouraging signals in the race for less destructive paths toward growth keep piling up. For instance, the recent charts about air pollution in China*. Yet like every systemic problem human beings have created for themselves and then tried to correct, this is an all-out race, between destruction and creation. On the positive side, we have this brief new report from McKinsey, which is source of the chart at top.
The report (by Sara Hastings-Simon, Dickon Pinner, and Martin Stuchtey) concerns the pace and feasibility of "cleantech" installations, and why they may be more feasible than they have seemed. The main problem with solar, wind, tidal, and other low-carbon energy sources has involved scale. Clean power sources have represented so tiny a share of the world's energy base, and coal's share has been so huge, that even as wind etc have expanded very fast in proportional terms, absolute demand for (and emissions from) coal keep going up fast. These scale realities are why, as I argued several years ago in an Atlantic cover story, developing cleaner coal is not a contradiction but a necessity. Charles Mann has a good new Wired story on the current complexion of the "cleaner coal" debate.
And now some more positive news from McKinsey, about a pending rapid increase in the feasibility of cleaner sources. The report begins:
The world is on the cusp of a resource revolution. As our colleagues Stefan Heck and Matt Rogers argue, advances in information technology, nanotechnology, materials science, and biology will radically increase the productivity of resources. The result will be a new industrial revolution that will enable strong economic growth, at a much lower environmental cost than in the past, thanks to the broad deployment of better, cleaner technologies and the development of more appropriate business models.
Then it raises the obvious objection:
But how do we reconcile this bold and heartening prediction with recent challenges experienced by cleantech, the general term for products and processes that improve environmental performance in the construction, transport, energy, water, and waste industries?
And goes on to suggest an answer. Worth checking out.
* Several people have written to ask about my assertion in the Chinese smog item: "No one now alive has experienced anything similar in North America or Europe, except in the middle of a forest fire or a volcanic eruption." The main counter-example offered is the Great London Smog of 1952, which blanketed the city for four days and may have contributed to thousands of premature deaths.
I'm not aware of any way to compare pollution readings from that era and this; most estimates are that Chinese air pollution now prematurely kills many hundreds of thousands people each year; and in any case we are comparing a four-day emergency in one very large city with ongoing, years-long reality in many places in the world's most populous country. Similarly, the four-day-long Donora smog emergency of 1948 is thought to have killed 20 people in Pennsylvania, or less than the average premature deaths in China because of air pollution per hour.
Still, in the interests of precision I am happy to amend the original claim as follows: "No one now alive has experienced anything similar in North America or Europe, except in the middle of a forest fire or a volcanic eruption, or in London over four days 62 years ago."
At least from our perspective, the discussion was a lot of fun, including in hinting at some of the changes wrought even in a long and happy marriage that has seen its share of other odd locales, once you start trekking around the country in a little plane.
Tonight the hour-long program is scheduled to be shown on C-SPAN at 8pm Eastern. If you're interested, please check it out there. C-SPAN schedules sometimes change at short notice, but that is the plan for now.
The C-SPAN broadcast probably does not include a sequence of en-route snapshots we've taken through the months on the road (and in the air). These were run as B-roll before the program began, and they're available in un-annotated form as a G+ album. And that map at top is explained in this previous post.
I was sorrier than I can say to have learned today that Michael Janeway, a friend who influenced many journalistic institutions but probably most of all The Atlantic, had died of cancer.
The Boston Globe, where Mike held a sequence of editing roles including that of editor in chief, ran a wonderful appreciation by Joseph Kahn, which is true to the range of achievements and complexities in his life and career. I mention it both in hopes that you'll read Kahn's article and as an excuse to offer a screen shot of the Globe photo by Stan Grossfeld that accompanied the obit, which is of Michael Janeway in his mid-40s and captures him at his sunniest.
Mike Janeway is known in journalism for a series of influential roles: at the Globe, where he fostered talent and invented or revitalized sections before a stormy period as head editor; then as a book editor at Houghton Mifflin; then as dean of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern, where he foresaw and discussed many of the trends all of journalism is now coping with; then as a professor at Columbia Journalism School; and as an author, including of a history-memoir of the New Deal-and-afterwards policy intelligentsia.
This last (The Fall of the House of Roosevelt) was cast as memoir because Mike's parents, the economist Eliot Janeway and the novelist Elizabeth Janeway, were in the middle of this group, and Mike grew up hearing stories about them and meeting luminaries around the house. It also turned on Mike's difficult relationship with his then-quite famous father, as you can see from the book itself or via Michael Beschloss's fine review in the NYTBR. Among the Janeways' New Deal contacts had been the rising Congressman Lyndon Johnson. As a teenager Mike had a summer job working on Capitol Hill for Senator Johnson, and he remained deeply interested in the grandeur and the tragedy of the ultimate Johnson saga: the ambitions for a Great Society and a "we shall overcome!" civil-rights movement, the disaster of Vietnam. The circle of people grappling with the contradictions of Johnson -- of whom Robert Caro is best known now but that also includes Billy Lee Brammer, Bill Moyers, Doris Kearns Goodwin, James C. Thomson, Harry McPherson -- very much included Mike Janeway.
That's the journalism world in general. His influence on the Atlantic specifically was profound. In 1967, five years out of college, he joined the magazine as a staff editor. Robert Manning had just become editor and was shifting the magazine toward coverage of the great upheavals of that time -- race relations, wealth and poverty, Vietnam, all the rest. On their watch the magazine published probably the best real-time assessment of what was going wrong in Vietnam, James C. Thomson's "How Could Vietnam Happen? An Autopsy" -- and a long sequence of other journalism that stands up nearly two generations later. In 1968, when Mike was 28, he and Manning co-edited an influential book of writing about Vietnam, called Who We Are. The magazine you see today is an extension of what Manning, Janeway, Richard Todd, Louise Desaulniers, Michael Curtis, and others (including Elizabeth Drew, the Washington correspondent) created in those years.
I was in college then, and I would rush out to the newsstand -- yes, that's how it worked in those days -- to get the new issues of The Atlantic, and Harper's, and the nascent Rolling Stone.I barely dared imagine then that I could eventually write for one of these publications, and that I managed to write for the Atlantic is due to Mike Janeway.
After I heard the news about Mike today, I stopped to reflect that a small group of people (outside my family) gave me crucial opportunities, support, and direction at important early moments in my path. One, perhaps improbably, was Ralph Nader, under whose auspices and at whose prodding I ended up writing two books very soon after leaving college. Another was, of course, Charles Peters, whose role in training generation after generation of reporters and writers at The Washington Monthly is well-known at least within the business.
Another was Michael Janeway. After I had finished my Washington Monthly stint and was trying to get a start as a free-lancer based in Texas,he entertained one proposal for an Atlantic story. After he nursed me through that one, there was another, and another. Years later, when he was at Houghton Mifflin and I had run into trouble with a different publisher with my idea for a book, he took it over and guided it to what I found a very satisfying conclusion. (This was More Like Us.) When he was dean at Medill-Northwestern, he invited me to give a speech that became the outline and impetus for my book Breaking the News. All of this doesn't matter to anyone else, but it mattered a lot to me, and his example (plus others') is in my mind as I think about dealing with people now trying to get a start.
As Joseph Kahn's excellent Globestory conveys, Michael Janeway was not always an easy-going man -- toward others, or on himself. I am glad for the reports that he became more contented in his latest years. I am sorry that I did not think to tell him directly how much he had meant to his profession, and to this magazine, and to me, but I wanted to say it to his family members now.
Everyone "knows" that China is badly polluted. I've written over the years, and still believe, that environmental sustainability in all forms is China's biggest emergency, in every sense: for its people, for its government, for its effect on the world. And yes, I understand that the same is true for modern industrialized life in general. But China is an extreme case, and an extremely important one because of its scale.
Here are two simple charts, neither of them brand-new but both easily comprehensible, that help dramatize how different the situation is there. The first, by Steven Andrews for China Dialoguevia ChinaFile, compares official Chinese classifications of "good" air conditions with those in Europe or North America.
Here is the point of this graphic: The green and yellow zones in the left-hand column, showing official Chinese government classifications, are for "good" or "OK" air—while those same readings would be in the danger zone by U.S. or European standards. When you're living in China, it's impossible not to adjust your standards either to ignore how dire the circumstances are, so you can get on with life, or to think that any day when you can see across the street is "pretty good."
The scale for all countries stops at 250 (micrograms per cubic meter). Everyone who has spent time in Beijing or other bad-air cities knows what it is like with readings of 500 or above. Even Shanghai had a 600+ "airpocalypse" this past winter. No one now alive has experienced anything comparable in North America or Europe, except in the middle of a forest fire or a volcanic eruption.
Here's the other chart, comparing the 10 most-polluted Chinese cities with the 10 in America. It is from The Washington Post a few weeks ago:
The U.S. readings on this chart show something about challenges in the Central Valley of California, which is where six of the seven most-polluted cities are. (And the other is Los Angeles.) More on that shortly, in our American Futures series. But the scale difference of Chinese pollution is sobering. Even the worst American cities would be in the tip-top most excellent bracket in the chart at the top.
More sobering still: Air pollution, while the most visible (literally), is not the most serious of China's environmental problems. Water pollution, and water shortage, are worse.